An Interview with Scott Gelb, COO of Riot Games

Scott Gelb is the COO of Riot Games. We had the chance to sit down with him and discuss his journey in the gaming industry.

How did you get started in gaming, what inspired you to join the industry?

I started playing games back in the early 80s, when I was around five or six years old. My dad brought home an Atari 2600 that he got some type of deal on, and that’s when I first started playing games. This continued on to Nintendo, which eventually led me to the Apple II computers at my elementary school. I think I was around seven when I started making ‘choose your own adventure games’ with this programming language called Logo. There was a turtle that you could move around the screen and draw lines and text with. I kind of got hooked from there on.

Over the course of my childhood, I played a ton of computer and console games. I got my first computer when I was 11; it was an Apple IIGS that I eventually made PC-compatible with a PC converter. This allowed me to play more games, as Apple didn’t run many of the computer games that were available at the time. This is where gaming and programming really took off for me. Then when I went off to college to study computer science at the University of Kansas in 1996. After four years there, I came back to St. Louis and went to grad school for computer science at Washington University. There I was studying distributed systems. Little did I know that distributed systems were going to be a huge part of my future in relation to online multiplayer gaming.

When I was in college and studying software development, I took a couple of classes on video game programming that had just been introduced by a couple seniors. They had just finished some game development internships over the previous summer and wanted to start this new curriculum at the school. I took the first part of this course on video game programming, where I built a freeze tag game in the Torque engine with my team, based off of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game novel. During the class, I heard the seniors’ stories of their internship experiences and they said, “If you want to get into gaming, you’re going to have to really get your mind wrapped around three things. One, you’re not going to get paid a lot. Two, you’re going to have to leave St. Louis. And three, you’re going to work really long hours.” I was okay with lower pay and longer hours, but my family was in St. Louis and I wasn’t prepared to leave them. I decided to search for a game development job locally in town. After months of looking, I couldn’t find anything in St. Louis; there were only a couple opportunities and they wanted people who had already made games. It was a bit of a Catch-22. So eventually I said, “I’m okay for now,” until I bought a book called, Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture.

When you were starting out, was there a time that you doubted your career choice?

For sure. I investigated those opportunities in St. Louis and started to get more invested in the community there, with my parents and my family, and my girlfriend at the time. So, I started to become a little bit more complacent about it. But then I read this book Masters of Doom. It was the story of the “two Johns,” as they were referred to, John D. Carmack and John Romero, who started id Software in Texas. They had some of the most successful, first-person shooter games that changed everything, with Doom, Quake and Castle Wolfenstein. And this was back in the day when there was shareware, games that you could pretty much play for free, or at least part of it was free and then you could donate money to it. These were also some of the first computer games that were truly multiplayer over a network; you could actually play over a modem connection or over this new internet thing that had just come out in the 90s.

I read the book in one sitting. It was a Tuesday night and I read it in about six or seven hours. The story of two people who built something from nothing, with only a dream and a vision of making something great for players, and the impact they ended up having on the world…the content was so powerful for me and left such an impression that I finally became open to leaving St. Louis, to chase after my dream of making games for players. I thought, I have to do this. I want to make games. I want to be a part of a company that helps brings great game experiences to players that have a positive impact on them. Games had been my passion and escape for most of my life and it was time for me to make them for others. Up to this point, I had been working at different startups. While I was in grad school, I was actually working part-time at three or four different companies in all sorts of different industries. It was finally time to make the move into game development, even if it meant leaving the city where I grew up.

Not very long after, I was looking around and still hadn’t found anything. Then I went to San Francisco, to the JavaOne conference in 2006. I met a member of Perpetual Entertainment while at this conference. I did an interview with a gentleman named Mark Rizzo, who was leading their platform technology group. I interviewed for a platform engineering role and ended up getting the job. I came home and gave the news to my manager, Mike Seavers, one of the best managers I’ve had and who succeeded me a couple years ago in running the Riot technology organization. I said to Mike, “I have got to go.” He knew how much I loved games, so he didn’t even try to talk me out of it, even though he knew this was going to be a hit to the team. I took the job, much to my familys’ chagrin. I left St. Louis and moved to San Francisco to begin a gig at my fifth startup, Perpetual Entertainment. That was July 2006 and the beginning of my career in games.

What is one strategy that Riot is using that works very well to generate business?

Our mission statement as a company is that we aspire to be the most player-focused game company in the world. The choice to make this our mission, especially before we scaled the company, was monumental. With that kind of mindset and with the people we hire that care so much about player experience and have a high level of empathy; having this shared purpose is at the root of Riot’s success. You see this and other companies like Amazon and Zappos where customer obsession is a big part of the company culture. They use that as a guiding principle, as their north star. That I believe for us is the big difference at Riot.

We’ve had a bunch of challenges, and we’ve made many mistakes in the past, we’ve had some wins, and we’ve had some losses. We’ve succeeded because of some of the things we’ve done, and we’ve succeeded in spite of some of the things we’ve done. But the thing that I feel is the true differentiator for us is player focus. With that comes a lot of other things, like our business model where we refuse to use predatory business tactics. In our monetization, we want players to feel good; we value player trust, we want to be closer to our players. Our employees do not have to funnel a lot of their communications through PR or community teams like a lot of other gaming companies. We want our employees to be able to interact with players in the community to understand the experience that they are having with our games. I think our mission and the player-focused mindset have been critical to our success and have acted as the northstar to help guide decision-making, especially when the challenges we face are often ambiguous.

When you look at yourself, what do you think is your most valuable asset to the team and to the company?

One would be my passion for technology and gaming. I’m a lifelong technologist and gamer. I grew up spending most of my time with computers and video games in an era where they were not very prevalent and accepted by others. In fact, I was made fun of for my passion and was called a nerd and bullied as a result. I persisted through the negativity and friction because I saw so much amazing value in technology and gaming. I don’t look at what we do as work and believe it is a privilege to have the opportunity to serve players around the world. My passion and my persistence to get the best outcomes for the company and our players is probably the most valuable asset I have to offer.

The other thing is my ability to connect with people. I’m an active listener and put a lot of focus on being present in the moment. As a result, I am often able to connect with others in a way that helps me to ask the right questions, understand motivations, and ultimately, find ways to help people work through the challenges they face. Related, one of the things that has always been very important to me is bringing people together to have fun, to learn, and to help each other. In my work environment, that has been one of my strengths. Collaborating, bringing people together and forging teams with lasting bonds that can tackle tough challenges together.

I know a lot of your work is confidential, but what is one tough decision you have had to make in the past couple months?

From a general perspective, we are obviously working on future games and have had to make tough decisions around priorities. How are we going to allocate our creative and technical talent to these efforts? When will we bring our new experiences to players? We have several outcomes that we want to achieve, so there have been some pretty tough prioritization calls. Obviously, we can’t do everything at once and we have a lot of irons in the fire when it comes to the future. At the same time, we are really focusing on strengthening and rebuilding our culture and the overall systems we use to operate as a company, while also focusing on new game experiences. Balancing those things leads to some pretty tough decisions.

More specifically, one of the things that is very important to us as a company is Thunderdome. Thunderdome is our Hackathon where folks from all across the company, from different disciplines come together to basically let loose their innovation and creativity, on something they’re very passionate about, and different from what they work on in their daily job. This has been a staple for us for quite some time, but we decided to cancel this year’s instance of it due to being so focused on a lot of important things for the company’s future and we really didn’t want to distract. It is usually a 48-hour hackathon that occupies the majority of three workdays. There is usually a hangover effect for the following week due to people staying late to work on their project and coming in early. It really does impact about a week of our schedule, and this year we just didn’t have that week to give. As a leadership team, we made the decision to cancel this instance and, for me as someone who helped kickstart Thunderdome back in 2012, it was a tough call to make.

What is it, besides your ability to connect with people, that makes you successful?

One of the most important traits that I think every leader needs to demonstrate is being able to keep hope alive. When the going gets tough, it is very easy to become negative and eventually, want to give up. I’m pretty good at keeping my eye on the end goal and, if we face great difficulty, I’m usually the last one to throw my hands up in the air and say I’m done. I always try to help others keep their focus on the bigger picture and see the light at the end of the tunnel. Whether that’s in trying to ship a game or solve a cultural challenge. That is something that I feel I am pretty good at.

Related to keeping hope alive: when a leader is trying to be optimistic, they can skew too far. They can swing the pendulum far enough to a point where people don’t believe them, as they may not seem grounded in reality. This is why it’s extremely important to temper optimism with a healthy dose of skepticism; I refer to this as realistic optimism. While I tend to be optimistic, I can still be skeptical; this doesn’t manifest as snarkiness and you will rarely, if ever, find me being negative. I may ask questions and I may not agree with something, but ultimately, I will look for an opportunity to win. I believe this is one of the things that has helped me in working with others and creating strong team culture.

What was your most satisfying moment in business?

I have a feeling that moment is still to come!

In the past, there have been several satisfying moments related to seeing leaders I’ve supported grow. When these folks have spread their wings, hit their stride, stretched themselves, and increased their impact positively for others and the business…those are some of my most satisfying moments.

As far as a general business outcome, it was probably launching League of Legends. There were many odds against us and we almost ran out of money on multiple occasions. There were a ton of challenges – we did not have enough time and as a result, we had to really focus on the minimum viable feature set for the launch of the game. Thankfully, that limited set was able to capture our core audience and grow it during a time when folks were telling us we were not going to be able to survive. Being able to launch LoL with the constraints we initially had is one of my most satisfying moments.

Another group of moments is related to esports. The first time we had a high production value world championship at the Galen Center here in Los Angeles in Season 2 in 2012. The follow-up at the Staples Center in 2013. And then some of our big international events, like South Korea with the Imagine Dragons performance in 2014 and the Bird’s Nest in Beijing with the AR Elder Dragon in 2017.

What does the future hold for Riot, what are you most excited about?

There are two main things that I am most excited about for Riot’s future.

The first is our culture. We’ve had some challenges over the past couple years and been focusing on maturing the company. When Dylan, Nicolo and myself took on our roles from our Founders, there were a lot of challenges related to scaling and growth that we really needed to address. We have been putting a lot of time and effort into rebuilding a lot of the foundation of Riot to help better prepare for the future.

When it comes to how we operate, there is a lot of exciting work we are doing with respect to diversity and inclusion. We’ve also been revamping many of our talent and finance processes, including how we recruit, how we do workforce planning across the company, and how we strategically plan and forecast for the future. This is all coming together in a way that’s helping us to operate the company more effectively. ‘Execute with Excellence’ is one of our new values and we have really put a lot of time and effort into making ourselves more efficient so that we can focus the majority of our time on the most important things.

Becoming a company that is more than League of Legends, that is known for having multiple game experiences that people enjoy and are passionate about is something that I’ve been looking forward to for years. We have been working on building a foundation to support our multi-game future for quite some time. I think having our next game experiences go live, and all of the new things that we’re working on come to fruition is what I am most excited about.

What challenges does the video gaming industry face? How do you see the industry overcoming those challenges?

One challenge in particular that is close to us has been some of the diversity and inclusion issues that have transpired both at our company and within the industry. The industry’s roots have been very male-oriented and have not always been inclusive to all. I think our industry is facing a lot of these challenges now and we are growing up and making changes. We’ve always wanted to be a great home for people who make games, but we realized that while Riot was great for a lot of people, not everyone was having that experience. We’re setting a high bar for diversity and inclusion and continuing to build a fair, collaborative, high-performing culture. I’m lucky to be able to collaborate with some great leaders like Angela Roseboro on this work.

Related, the concept of play for me has never been something that only some people in the world like or prefer. Play is intrinsic to the human species. It is something that helps bring us together and escape the stress we encounter in our daily lives. Video games are a manifestation of play that folks from all walks of life can enjoy. Creating game experiences that are more inclusive and can bring diverse groups together, so that we can have fun together, is both a challenge and an opportunity that I think we as an industry are facing, and I am excited that we are focusing more on it than ever before and really hope to see a ton of progress here over the next several years.

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What are some business books that you recommend?

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. This book talks about how we think and the different modes of our brains, System One and System Two. System One is our fast reaction to what we hear and how we react to things in the moment, and is the foundation for much of our “fight-or-flight” way of reactive thinking. System Two is the basis for the more reasonable aspect of our brain that is really processing things more deeply. Learning about how to manage those two aspects around how we think has been very valuable for me.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck focuses on the difference between a fixed and growth mindset, and how people can actually change their existing mindset over time. An example is how many people think that they cannot draw but in actuality, this is due to their own fixed mindset, usually from being told that in the past or assuming that it’s really hard. As a result, many people never even try to draw. So many things that people believe they cannot do is because of a fixed mindset approach. People can learn to have a growth mindset, which often leads to being more open towards opportunity and more likely to get those opportunities.

Discover Your True North by Bill George. I recently took a class at the Harvard Business School called Authentic Leadership Development. A lot of the curriculum was based around this book by Bill George, who was one of our strongest leaders in the field of management and leadership. The book was filled with wisdom on how to find your purpose as a leader, and how to be your authentic self as a leader, in all aspects of your integrated life.

What is a recent purchase that you have made that has helped you?

I just attended a leadership course at the Harvard Business School. It was a wonderful and transformative experience – for six days I was on the business school’s campus with 160 diverse leaders from over 30 countries around the globe. We had fantastic professors that covered a breadth of content on leadership, utilizing background stories and case studies on impactful leaders like Abraham Lincoln, Rachel Carson, and Howard Schultz. This was one of the best investments I’ve made in myself and would highly recommend for others who are interested in the topic.

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